It is often said that the times that people are most reflective about their lives is during times of stillness, when in the quiet all they have is their thoughts. Imagine with me if you will, that we are peering into thoughts of someone who is in that place of reflection. Now before we go there, let me say that this person whose thoughts we are about to delve into IS NOT ME. It is a fictional person we’ll call Alex. Alex can be representative of anybody. So without further ado, let’s see what is on Alex’s mind:
Tomorrow is my birthday. "Happy birthday to me, Alex ... I'll be fifty-three..." And what have I done with my life? I’ve had three failed marriages. My first one was right out of high school. I was young and dumb, you know, and had no business being married. Then there was number two. And that’s how I felt after a while. Nothing I did seemed to be good enough. And my last one – I was left cold. I came home one day to a house full of furniture, and a note saying that our marriage was not worth saving. I don’t understand where things went wrong …
Financially, things could be worse. I might not live in the neighborhood I’d like to live in, don’t drive a new car every seven years. I’ve changed careers more than a couple of times. Right now I’m in a job that … let’s say I don’t dread going to it every day. It looks like I’ll have to work longer than I’d like to before I can afford to retire. But at least I have a job, a place to live, and can put food on my table.
And I have my health. But even that scares me. Last year a co-worker of mine learned she has MS. My younger brother died from a heart attack in January. Jack was so young – only 47. Mom was my age when she died from cancer. It so difficult for me to watch her suffer like that – she fought so hard up until the end. And Dad’s Alzheimer’s has progressed – if you can call it “progress” – to the point where he doesn’t recognize anybody. He used to be my biggest fan, and it hurts so much that he doesn’t know me…. I don’t want to be a burden to my daughters. Ever.
My girls. They have their own families and live in other states now. I did the best I could with them, but sometimes I think I should have done more. I’ve been trying to save some money so I can go see the grandkids this summer – they’re growing so fast! But with prices for everything going up, and my job cutting back, and now my car going on the fritz … it’s always something …
I’m afraid of getting old. But I definitely don’t want to die. I’m not ready to. Still, I can’t help thinking, Is this all there is? Growing up I was taught to be my own person, to make my own decisions, to create my own destiny. … I’ve lived my life as a pretty decent person. But when I look at what I have, I feel like I don’t have much of a life at all. I'm "alive," but I feel so ... ...
I remember during my college days there were these groups on campus with signs that said "Are you saved?" Me? Saved? From what? For what? What kind of offbeat question is that? "Are you saved?"
I didn't know any of those students very well. I had a class with one or two of them, but outside of school, we ran in different circles. And I never asked them about this “being saved” thing. I'd just keep walking by, puffing away on my Marlbroro cigarette as I'd make my way to my next class. I didn't want to get involved in their religious mumbo-jumbo. Besides, I didn't need “saving”. I went to church and Sunday school when I was growing up. I wasn’t a trouble-maker or anything like that. I was a good enough person, and that was good enough for me.
One of those girls from college – her name is Laura, we had a chemistry lab class together back in the day – I'd see her around town throughout the years. She always seemed ... different. Even back then. Not in a bad way. Just, I don't know, different. It was as though she had a handle on life, you know? Even after I dropped school our paths would cross, but not in a way where we'd connect. We'd say hi at the grocery store, make eye-contact at the gym, that kind of thing. Our kids knew each other, but only as schoolmates. Her kids were in the grades between my girls. Her children seemed “different” too. Even when they were teenagers. They dressed more conservatively than most kids. Modest, but not dowdy, you know? They didn't party. They were actually respectful to their parents! I don't know what their grades were like, but they still managed to be popular. … I don't get it. My two seemed so out of control at times. My girls and I are about as close as Alaska and Zimbabwe.
I saw Laura and her husband not long ago having dinner at that little Italian place DiMangi’s. I don’t know how long they’ve been together now. Must be more than 25 years ... and they still adore each other! You can tell it’s not an act. I don’t remember anyone ever looking at me the way they were looking at each other. Genuine love that looks deep into the soul. How could they do that? I've struck out, three times, and never even came close to having what they seem to have with each other.
I’ve made lots of mistakes and bad decisions over the years, and look where it got me. Life doesn’t give do-overs. Hopefully I still have a lot of life to live though. I want my life to get better, not worse. I wonder – how I can have just part of what Laura has?
Let’s come out of Alex’s thoughts, and back to here-and-now.
Alex, the person whose thoughts we eavesdropped on could be anybody who is struggling through life without Jesus. Perhaps Alex reminded you of someone you know. Perhaps Alex reminded you of you.
Very often when we think of spreading the Gospel we think of sharing with those with visible needs, such as the homeless, the troublemakers, the addicted … people who are much different from us. But in John 3:16, it is clear that Jesus was not selective about whom he came to save.
“For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.”
But Jesus did not leave it up to us who we ought to share the gospel with. His final instructions to his disciples in Acts 1:8, “…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” That covers a lot of territory! But notice where Jesus said his disciples would start – in Jerusalem. Right where they were, in their own neighborhood, being witnesses to people who they already knew and who knew them.
To be a witness is to attest to things that you personally have seen, heard, and experienced. The “Laura” in our story was doing what Jesus commanded us to do. She was a witness at school, and later in the town where she lived, and in her relationships with her husband and children. Alex saw that, and recognized something in Laura’s life that he did not have. But Alex was “stuck” in life, wanting more but not knowing how to get it.
That place of being “stuck” reminds me of a comic strip I saw many years ago. It’s one of those single-panel comics. In it is a picture of a man sitting in a cardboard box, with bars cut out of the front of the box, like a prison. The man has paper chain between his wrists, like the paper chains you make out of construction paper at Christmas time. And the caption below the comic reads,
|"Mr. Boffo" by Joe Martin|
“Handcuffed to the bars of a cardboard prison, he waits out his time like the fool that he is.”
Here is a man who is free to leave his prison any time he wants. The chains holding him are construction paper – he can rip them apart with hardly any effort. The bars in the box are cardboard – he can pull them apart and walk out between the bars any time he wants. Yet there he remains, “stuck” in prison. It is as though he does not know he can be free. No one has told him. If he has been told, he has rejected the news. Until he believes he can be free, he remains in prison, serving a life sentence.
You don’t go to prison for being a “good” person. You end up in prison when you do something wrong. When you do something wrong, it’s called “sin”. Let’s see what Jesus says about that. In John 8:34, Jesus said:
“I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
Alex did not do anything horribly wrong in his life. But Alex did admit to doing some wrong things and making poor decisions. That is sin. Alex is a sinner. And as a sinner, he is not a free person. Not unless he knows who can set him free. And that is Jesus.
Now, we know Jesus is not physically here on earth. But there are witnesses to what Jesus has done in their lives. If Jesus has impacted us in any way, you and I are witnesses. And what does a witness do? Tells what they know. What do we know? Jesus can change our lives. Who can you and I help by telling? People who are in “cardboard prisons.” Who do we know in a “cardboard prison”? Alex. And who does Alex represent? Anyone we know who does not know Jesus.
There was a time in my life that I was like Alex. Not exactly the same story, mind you. I wasn’t 53 – I was more like 23 or so. I too saw the tables set up on the college campus, and I too thought, why do I need to be “saved”? Like Alex, was not a troublemaker, but I had made some mistakes, and had a few failures of my own. I too was looking for someone who could look deep into my soul and still love ME.
My “Laura” was a man named Jeff and his wife Debie. I met Jeff and Debie through a guy I had dated for a couple of years. The more I got to know Jeff and Debie, the more I could see they were different from most people I knew. They were not perfect, but they had this unusual assurance about them. They had a sense of joy, and peace, and gentleness that I didn’t see in the world around me. I wanted those qualities in my life.
The relationship I was in at the time eventually ended, but I remained friends with Jeff and Debie for quite some time. They invited me to go to church with them. The first few times they did, I made lame excuses why I couldn’t go. I had to work – at 3:00 that afternoon. I was out the night before – but not really that late. But they kept inviting. I even used the excuse, “If I showed up at a church, the roof would cave in!” But eventually I thought, I’ll go just once. What have I got to lose? So I went. And through Jeff and Debie I was introduced to the One who could free me. They introduced me to Jesus. The same Jesus who made a blind man to see. The same Jesus who looks deep into my soul and still love ME. The same Jesus who could set me free from a cardboard prison. The same Jesus who, while I was a sinner, died on a cross so I could have life. And my life has never been the same since.
Who is your “Laura” that introduced you to Jesus? I want to encourage you to thank them or do something to honor them for what they did, even if you have lost contact with them. But more importantly, who is your “Alex” that is still serving a life sentence in a “cardboard prison”? Just as Alex needs Laura to tell him he can be free, just as I needed Jeff and Debie, Your Alex needs YOU to introduce him or her to Jesus.
If you had the key to open Alex’s prison, it would be unfair not to give it to him, right? Jesus is that key. The difference between a life sentence in a cardboard prison, and living a life of freedom in Christ is to humbly come before the Lord, and say, “Jesus, I come to you as a sinner. I confess to you that I have made mistakes and poor decisions in my life. I am sorry. Thank you, Jesus, for forgiving me of my sins, and freeing me from my cardboard prison. I turn to You to be my Lord and Savior.”
Brothers and sisters, know this: There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For if the Son has set you free, you are free indeed! Amen.